Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home
Matthew Batt
258 pages, softcover:
$14.95
Mariner, 2012.

Matthew Batt is a perpetual student, earning his Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah while his wife, Jenae, works -- until she finally gets tired of supporting his grad-school habit. "I got home from 'class' one night, four pitchers to the wind, with bits of peanut shell stuck between my teeth, to find Jenae tear-streaked and furious," Batt writes in Sugarhouse, his hilarious memoir of home renovation and family relationships. Batt resolves to change his ways in the wake of a rapid series of deaths in the family, including those of Jenae's grandfather and Batt's grandmother and adoptive father. Jenae and Batt decide that it's time for them to commit to a rooted and grownup life by buying a home of their own: "Everyone but us was dying, getting divorced, or having a kid, and we were stuck with our hands in our pockets waiting for the band to start."

They focus on the Sugarhouse section of Salt Lake City, "one of two viable neighborhoods for liberal types who want to live in Utah but pretend they're still in America." But after years of peripatetic student life, their credit is shot, so they're forced to aim low, settling on a "for sale by owner" house.

The location and price are right, but the ambiance is not. The owner casually dismisses the prior renter: "Neighbors'll tell you she sold the crack cocaine -- the windows was all shut up with foil and cardboard. But don't you listen to that horse hockey." The stench of the house is "something between a derelict litter box, muddy diapers, and a basement backed up with wastewater." Still, they buy it and settle into dogged work, using their limited renovation skills. Meanwhile, Batt frets about his grandfather, who spirals out of control after his wife's death and repeatedly heads to Vegas with a young gold-digger named Tonya.

Although the family's road trips are more fun to read about than they must have been to experience, the renovation and real estate scenes, with their colorful characters, make you wish you could have Batt at your side, cracking jokes, during your next home improvement attempts. Through his many misadventures, Batt discovers "a nebulous world where trying to improve something means implicitly bringing it to the brink of its (or my own) destruction in order to give it a new life."